Childless or Childfree? Explaining the Difference

by sockii

Does it matter which term you use: childless or childfree? While many may not understand the distinction, there is a very strong one for some and it's important to understand why.

"Childless" or "Childfree"—is one or the other a more correct term for those who do not have children...and does it matter?

Most people likely do not ever think about this topic—at least not those who have children themselves or are thinking about it for their future. But the "childfree" vs. "childless" label debate is one that can become quite charged for others: those who have made the conscious decision not to be parents, and those who would like to be parents but can't for reasons including infertility.

On this page I will not attempt to argue whether one phrase is somehow "better" than the other, but simply discuss some of the differences in these terms and why people might prefer to use one over the other, depending upon their personal circumstances.

Childfree vs. Childless

Looking at the History and Definition of the Terms

Man and womanChildless is defined simply as a being "without children". A childless state can be due to numerous factors: infertility, lack of resources to become parents, inability to meet adoption requirements, voluntary celibacy, infant death, lack of suitable partner, a partner's unwillingness to be a parent, and of course, making the conscious decision to not have children.

Childfree is a term which dates only from the late 20th Century, and is typically defined as "voluntary childlessness" and "people who have made a personal decision not to have children." (Wikipedia) It is therefore not a historical word, but one coined to specify the conscious choice not to procreate or be a parent.

The advent of modern, reliable birth control methods has made this choice available to many where it would not have been in the past. Women in developed countries are also more likely to be able to pursue an education and career that gives them a choice in life beyond marriage, motherhood, and then caring for their elders.

Many of those who have chosen not to have children strongly dislike the word childless, feeling that it implies they are somehow "lesser" or missing something in their lives when that is not the case. Those who choose to not have children often feel that makes their lives better or more fulfilling, not the other way around, so they are happy to celebrate living childfree.

However, for a person who would like to have a child and has been unable to, for whatever reason, the term childfree may feel like an uncomfortable fit. It's not something they want to celebrate; it's not a "positive" to them, the way other "-free" terms might be (fat-free, sugar-free, interest-free, royalty-free, etc.) If they use the term childfree, they may feel they need to add "not by choice" or "by circumstance" when in a discussion where the term childfree is being used.

It can be a prickly point and everyone seems to have different comfort levels with being called either childfree or childless. In fact, some of those who have chosen to be childfree say you cannot use that term for yourself if you've ever wanted children at any point in your life.

The Childfree Community on Livejournal makes their stance on the terminology matter quite clear, from the childfree by choice point-of-view: 

"We choose to call ourselves 'childfree' rather than 'childless,' because we feel the term 'childless' implies that we're missing something we want -- and we aren't... Childfree means that you do not want children -- now or ever. If you have no kids now, but plan to in the future -- through adoption or biologically -- you are childless."

Image credit

Is today's society unduly prejudiced against the childless and childfree? Author Laura Carroll examines why so much emphasis is put on having children.

My Personal Preference: Childless by Circumstance

Even with accepting infertility, I don't feel welcomed in childfree communities
I personally identify as "childless, working toward being childfree", although the fact that I have in the past wanted children apparently makes me unwelcome in many strictly childfree communities and circles. The irony is that when I was younger, in my 20s and early 30s, I was convinced I never wanted children at all. It was never in my thoughts or plans for the future; I actually felt strongly repulsed by the idea of having kids and spent time even in the hardcore childfree community.

But then I did become that cliche of the woman who hits her mid-thirties and suddenly has a change of heart. Much of that was due to meeting someone I finally felt comfortable and complete with in my life. I thought we could make great parents together, but unfortunately factors have made it such that it never happened for us. We did make the conscious decision not to pursue fertility treatments or other family-building options (for numerous personal reasons) but I still feel somewhat "in between" the childless and childfree communities. And I find there can be a great divide between the two that makes it difficult for people who identify as childfree or childless to understand each other's point of view.

One event scheduled for October of 2015, which may go some way in trying to heal that divide, is The Not Mom Summit in Cleveland, Ohio. Featuring speakers and sessions from notable writers and counselors on subjects of childfree and childless life, the Summit appears to be the first of its kind for women without children by choice or by chance.

Which Term Do You Prefer?

How do you prefer to identify yourself?
Author Sue Fagalde Lick discusses a rarely talked about group of childless individuals: those who wanted children but their partners don't.

Childless or Childfree: Other Voices

Further discussion and debate on the subject

The links below continue the discussion of childless vs. childfree and are worth reading for other viewpoints on the terminology debate.

Books for Dealing with a Life without Children

Recommened titles from Amazon

This award-winning title takes a look at life when the limits of science and medicine have been reached. When so much of the time we only hear about the success stories of IF treatment, what about those for whom the end of the story does not involve baby? "Silent Sorority" brings voice to the often ignored and invisible world of the "not-Moms" in today's world and helps them find strength and power.

This book presents the voices and survey responses from over 3,800 "non-parents" around the world. Whether childfree by choice, circumstance or chance, these are all real stories and experiences that open up the world of child-free/less living.

Today's society is so oriented toward family - with family being defined as parents with children. This book examines navigating the social landmines of living childfree, including dealing with media and others' pressure to have children. It also gives a positive voice to the financial, health and personal benefits of life without children for those facing that path in live.

Are you a woman struggling to see how your life has meaning without children? If so, this book may be just what you need. It spotlights 20 women who have chosen to live childfree and how they have contributed to society, culture, and fulfilling themselves in other ways.

Updated: 11/10/2018, sockii
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